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Getting your shit together… in the workplace

Getting Your Shit Together is a new monthly column on everyday mental health from Auckland mindfulness educator Kristina Cavit. Here Kristina looks at simple ways to cope with workplace stress.

A couple of years ago I was disorientated and hooked up to a drip at Auckland hospital, using my free arm to email my new boss back about a deadline. “I knew you were our people when I found out you were in the hospital still working,” he responded. “You’re going to do great things!” Even at a not for profit, I learnt pretty quickly that my success was 100 percent linked to my productivity. So naturally the more I worked around the clock, the more validation I got. After years of this nonsense, I ended up in A&E – and this time my burnout helped me acknowledge my workaholic ways.

It took me a LONG time to realise how much I was beating myself up for not working hard enough. I started practicing meditation, yoga and The Work of Byron Katie and it eventually clicked that these thoughts were all bullshit.

We often associate this sort of overwork with the corporate world but it happens throughout society and across all age groups. It starts as young as school age, with kids being overloaded with homework and pressured to decide what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives. Then there are the people in hospo and so-called ‘unskilled labour’ working precarious jobs with the constant threat of being fired if they don’t complete heroic work schedules.

If you are employed at a place where the concept of prioritising your wellbeing seems laughable, you are not alone. We all know someone (or have been that someone) who doesn’t take lunch breaks, works sickening hours and spends the weekend ‘catching up’ and recovering. This negative cycle is making us sicker and sicker. According to one UK study, two thirds of people experience stress at work. Almost every client that I work with on stress management and mindfulness is suffering from work related stress and biting off WAY more than they can chew. We know that we should work less, exercise and sleep more, and try new things, but what can we do when these are just not an option?

Firstly, we need to recognise that if we practise something enough, the brain trains itself to perform. So when you focus on things like not doing ‘enough’, or being worried about work or insomnia, the brain gets really good at going back there automatically. The good news is we can change this pattern and we have a built in stress reliever to help us – the breath. By focusing your attention on the breath during stressful times, you’re relaxing your body and building positive muscle memory. And with practice, your default way of being can become more focused, calm and present.

If you’re experiencing stress at work, here are some practical ways to use the breath:

1. Find a place you’re not going to be disturbed – if you can, make it a comfortable space so you enjoy going there. Find a seated position that feels alert and relaxed.

2. Take 5: Without doing anything special, bring all of your attention to five slow breaths. By following the inhale and exhale, you can lower your heartbeat and even lower your blood pressure.

3. Belly breathing: When we watch a baby sleep, their belly rises as they inhale and falls as they exhale. As we get older, we can lose this ability to breathe deeply into the belly. Instead we take take short, shallow breaths into our chest. Chest breathing doesn’t allow the full amount of oxygen to move into the lowest part of the lungs which can leave us feeling anxious. By accessing our full breath capacity, we feel more relaxed (deep belly breathing can feel REALLY weird at first, so go easy on yourself!)

One of the other tools that helped me to make work more manageable was learning to have tough conversations. We spend so much time at work, but talking about our mental health can be humiliating and straight up terrifying. It can be really hard to ask for help when you’re feeling totally overwhelmed, so here are some things that help me with difficult conversations:

1. Find the right time. If your boss seems too busy to stop and chat, remember that supporting you is THEIR JOB. Ask them when would be a good time to talk about something important.

2. Come prepared. When we’re not in a position of power it’s easy to leave a difficult conversation by agreeing with whatever the boss wants. It can be helpful to write down or role play (yep, role play) what you want to say and stick to those points.

3. You don’t need all the answers. You and your boss might not know what to do straight away and that’s cool. By talking about what’s going on, you’re beginning to understand each other and find more clarity.

4. Listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s OK to say “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.”

5. Is there anything else? Reflect on the conversation and anything else you need to feel more supported.

I promise these conversations are almost always easier than we think they’re going to be. When we can be honest and relaxed, we’re more inspired to do rad shit and more likely to make positive change. And when we look after our wellbeing, this has a ripple effect on everyone around us. So maybe it’s time to dial the pressure back, slow the hell down and take a deep breath.

For more support, the Mental Health Foundation has put together OPEN MINDS, a series of awesome videos and resources that give managers confidence and skills to talk about mental health in the workplace.


This column is brought to you by the Mental Health Foundation. The MHF is working to create an Aotearoa where we all feel good most of the time, whether or not you have experience of mental illness. It promotes the Five Ways to Wellbeing – give, be active, take notice, keep learning and connect – because these five amazingly simple strategies really will make a difference to how you live and feel every day.